Catholic monks reveal how they prepare for death in a monastery
January 15, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – The news is regularly peppered these days with stories about the spread of euthanasia throughout Western societies.
A practice once considered abhorrent — indeed, simply a form of murder in cold blood, of those who are most vulnerable and most deserving of our loving attention and affection — is being promoted as the best way to “take someone out of their misery,” much as a lame horse or a frail pet is “put down” by the vet.
It seems to me that what we are seeing is the modern West’s typically arrogant attempt to control the mystery of death by a kind of “preemptive strike”: instead of suffering death as a purifying passage to eternal life, we try to commodify it as the ultimate form of analgesic.
Beneath the pseudo-scientific justifications and the epidemic of false compassion, we find still operative the primitive fear of death that no technology can overcome. Death is the reality that throws the rest of life into sharp relief as having been meaningful or meaningless. St. Paul even says that Our Lord came to deliver those “who, through the fear of death, were all their lifetime subject to servitude” (Heb 2:15). Slaves who feel oppressed and hopeless are driven to desparate acts.
The same Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God in command of the entire created world, experienced the fear of death according to His true human nature. Death is an evil from which every creature naturally flees, and man, with his power of reasoning and his ability to cognize time, can apprehend this future evil with unnerving results. No wonder the modern post-Christian world works overtime to hide from death and to hide it away as much as possible. Without God, death can have no meaning; without Christ, death can have no benefit; without the Holy Spirit, death cannot be faced with love and hope. It becomes the great absurdity rather than the gateway from mortal to immortal life.
Late in 2019, Ignatius Press published a new book, both sobering and strangely elevating: Nicolas Diat’s A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life. Diat is the French journalist well know for producing three book-length interviews with Cardinal Sarah: God or Nothing; The Power of Silence; The Day is Now Far Spent. For this book, Diat’s own work, Cardinal Sarah provides a Foreword.
To write this unusual book, Diat allowed himself ample time to visit eight monasteries in France, with the goal of talking to monks about their views on death, how they prepare for it, how it affects them when their confreres pass to the next life. It is remarkable if for no other reason than that one comes to realize how this question of death in fact enters, openly or subtly, into every other question humans face, and that it is in a sense THE question to which religion, and more particularly, religious life, is the answer. From that point of view, the book becomes an indirect apologia for the truth of Christianity.
Here I can only pick and share with you a few choice fruits. At one point, Dom David of En-Calcat Abbey observes:
He [Günther Anders] talks about the promethean shift that marks the modern world. Man has created a technological world that humiliates him and makes him feel ashamed…. Technology cannot be at fault. In contrast, in classical anthropology, man was the summit of the animal kingdom. Over the past 50 years, he has become the low point in a world dominated by technological idols. (53)
Dom David says our medical technology has developed to such an extent that it prolongs our agony and leaves us in tatters. We can end up viewing ourselves and one another in a depersonalized manner, as if we are machines with functional or non-functional parts, instead of seeing the image of God that is infinitely more precious than bodily life itself and any technology we can muster. Readers may be surprised to learn (although it stands to reason) that monasteries struggle with the same challenges laity face in the world: end of life care, pain medications, when to bring someone home from the hospital to die in his own bed.
Diat structures the book in such a way that it seems to become more serene about death as it goes on.
At En-Calcat, a seriously ill monk recounts: “I realize at what point life is not important. At the same time, it takes on all of its importance. I am clearly aware of the end of all things. But it is necessary to get up and fight for life” (43).
At Solesmes, the infirmarian talks about how he has learned to slow down and be attentive to detail so that he avoids rushing away from the care of the sick:
The risk of the commodification of the sick exists. I must pray to keep the strength of my desire to serve awake. [The sick brother] is Christ. When we come before God, we will be accountable for our charity toward the weakest. I need to know how to lose my time for the sick. In life, giving freely is essential. Christ said the man who loses his life gains it. (61)
Br. Theophane of Sept-Fons Abbey confides to Diat: “I am never so aware of the presence of God as at the moment of the death of my brothers. There is a break, a before and after. We are at the point of the most perfect intersection of God and the living” (93).
A monk of Cîteaux Abbey, Dom Olivier, shares a word with all the resonance of a desert father: “The hardest death is the little daily death, when we are perfectly healthy. In life we go from one death to another; they prepare us for the ultimate end. Little deaths of the ego are the big deaths, and they allow for a good death” (104).
Most moving to me was the chapter on Fontgombault Abbey, a Benedictine monastery with fully traditional observance and a larger than usual number of monks (Clear Creek in the USA is a daughter-house). Diat comments:
A bedridden monk often keeps his reflexes as a good religious. He looks for his rosary, he remembers prayers. Monastic formation endures. The monk dies as he has lived. He does not choose either his sickness or his suffering, but his death still resembles his life. (131)
One of the monks interviewed says: “The stronger the supernatural life, the greater the familiarity with the afterlife, and the simpler the death” (ibid.). The Catholic tradition has long emphasized this very point: if we wish to have a holy death, we must build up the habits in our lives that will come into play in our hour of greatest need. Death, in that sense, is no more than a final moment of a process that long predates it and prepares for it. Those who think it “unfair” that one’s eternal destiny should depend solely on the state of one’s soul at the moment of death are not thinking about it correctly: they do not see the truth that “as a man lives, so will he die.”
Within this chapter on Fontgombault, the most moving testimony comes from Dom Pateau, who shares the following wisdom:
The acceleration of technological life overwhelms us until the final moments. God must force us to take this time: He says, “That’s enough,” when modern man would readily answer, “I don’t have time.” We would be quite ready to miss the high point of this life. Man has become a slave. In the same way, he no longer has time for himself and for God. The lack is cruel. He does not have time to die because he does not have time to live. For his part, the monk agrees to lose all his time for God. Monastic life is happy; monastic death is, also. (135)
In the chapter on Mondaye Abbey, we hear the delightful story of an old soldier of World War II, later an Augustinian canon, who hailed from the Champagne region. He was on his deathbed in the hospital when his Father Abbot came to give him last rites. But no dreary atmosphere marked this moment. After last rites, the Abbot uncorked a bottle of champagne and they drank a toast. Two days later, Father Vincent died in peace, having been brought back to the abbey (148–49). Diat lets fall here a sentence that is worthy of much reflection: “A full community is composed of the living and the dead” (149). That is not our modern Western way of thinking, as Chesterton realized when he felt compelled to remind us: “Tradition is the democracy of the dead.” In fact, for Catholics, the greater and better part of the Church consists of the souls of the righteous, who are not dead but more alive by far than we are, as regards the life that is truly life. Their community is the exemplar and support of ours; together we form one body.
Surprisingly, it is the Carthusians—the most austere and inaccessible of all religious—who come across as the most humorous! In the last chapter, we read that Carthusians make saints, but do not promote their causes. The story is told of a Carthusian lay brother in the middle of the 17th century whose grave, after he died, became the site of ever-increasing miracles. The prior, having got wind of it, came out to the grave, and addressed the deceased: “In the name of holy obedience, I forbid you to perform miracles.” The extraordinary phenomena ceased (164).
A doctor says to a Carthusian: “This is serious, you could die!” The monk, without stopping to think, replies: “Well, if it is only that…” (168).
Diat has gathered for us, with loving hands, an assortment of the rarest flowers of piety, common sense, and Christian hope; now we can read them for our benefit. A Carthusian tells him: “I spend half my life thinking about eternal life. It is the constant backdrop that lines my whole existence… We must love this door that will allow us to know the Father” (166). The same monk writes in a note later on to the author: “It is not the door that I am waiting for, but what is on the other side of the door. I am not waiting for death, but for Life. This should go without saying, but curiously enough it is not so common” (169).
In his Foreword, Cardinal Sarah writes: “Monasteries are places where one learns to live and die in an atmosphere of silent prayer, the gaze always turned toward the beyond and the One who made us…” Nicolas Diat has indeed demonstrated how much we can and must learn from the monks, who live and die for Christ, in Christ, with Christ.